Contemplating the privilege and burden of this task leads me to reflect on a worship service my wife and I attended on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, last August. The Iona Sunday worship, which each Lord’s Day includes a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, drew 600 to 700 people, making it standing room only. Seated in front of us was a Roman Catholic nun.
Worship on Iona draws visitors who believe nothing and who believe everything, and who represent many Christian traditions. While little could destroy the simplicity of that “worship space” with sunlight flooding through the east gothic window onto the green and white marble communion table overflowing with loaves of bread and with wine in large crystal goblets, that service almost succeeded. Designed for children, the sermon, complete with puppets, was about a little frog and his struggle for self-esteem. The hymns (all unfamiliar) were, as we sang them, over-instructed. Frequently interrupted, I could not abandon my heart and soul in singing. The only recognizable element of this service which belongs to the universal church was the epiclesis. “Send down, O Lord, your Holy Spirit and bless these gifts of bread and wine … .” (I learned nothing of what an epiclesis was in my “worship” class in seminary in the 1960s. It took worship on Iona in 1965 for me to discover and understand it.)
So what is my complaint about the worship that was so inclusive of children, so “user friendly?” It was devoid of those universal elements which all Christians share at the holy table. There was neither creed nor Lord’s Prayer.
There was no sermon. I have forgotten what Scripture was shoehorned into the service, but the gospel is not about our self-esteem. It is about God’s esteem (unconditional love) for us, and our devotion to God. It is not about us finding ourselves, finding our way. The gospel is God’s finding us and setting us on the divine way, marked for us by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. Authentic worship joins us to the holy, catholic church, delivering us from self-concerns.
Watching the nun, I quieted my frustration by remembering what all Christians have in common: the Lord’s Prayer, the table, the font, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, the Holy Scriptures. This worship acknowledged none of that. Rather it invited to secular reflection many guests who might have been claimed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Of all places this happened on Iona, from whence came in the 20th century a community whose influence on English-speaking worship and music is more significant than anything, except the rise of gospel and praise music, in our time.
That worship reminded me of something Ralph Wood, who teaches at Wake Forest University, wrote in The Christian Century. He teaches students who “have been shaped by worship that is neither faithful nor strong.”
Wood sees that in too many churches students receive a religious version of the same therapeutic pabulum that is being hawked in the semi-religious, non-church world. He believes that Christian higher education must address this problem intentionally, and expose students to true worship in chapel services. (The same criticism and plea might be put to many seminary chapel worship services.)
Wood says that a primary enemy of faith is religious sentimentalism, which is characterized by devotion, not to ” … the majesty and holiness of the Creator and Redeemer, but to the ‘daddyhood’ of God.” This goes hand in hand with worship as performance, which includes rounds of applause following musical contributions. True worship presents us with God’s holiness and majesty, and with the beauty of Christ’s sufferings, which, neither pretty nor nice, reveal the glory of the God who saves us.
Further, Reformed worship engages heart and mind and will. It is not so concerned with feelings, with “religious sentimentalism.” Reformed worship doesn’t set out to make us feel good — especially not about ourselves. Worship is not about us, but about God. Worship at the General Assembly is not about our contributions, our agendas, our skin color, our gender, our ethnic origin, our sexual orientation or our feelings. We have undertaken to shape worship that will bring us face to face with the Maker and Redeemer, not of the Presbyterian Church alone, not even of all Christians — but of the universe.
John Bell has written that in “the reformed understanding, worship is not the rite or right of an ordained caste, but the duty, joy and prerogative of all believers.” He adds:
In worship we engage as the Body of Christ in an encounter with almighty God. This engagement should never become a rambling incoherence of well-meaning phrases. It should exhibit that … historic patterning of … expression which befits the meeting of the sons and daughters of earth with the King of Kings. Further, in public worship … it is important that the whole congregation sense a purpose and direction in their representation before God. They should never be put in the position of being spectators at a performance which is entirely dependent upon the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual whims of their leaders. This in no way precludes or denies the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit. The enemy of the Spirit is not form but anarchy.*
I pray that we, who have planned General Assembly worship for 2004, have come close to a “historic patterning that befits a meeting of all” who attend with the Maker of heaven and earth whom we know as Jesus Christ the Lord.
*John Bell, a member of the Iona Community, is a musician, composer of hymns and internationally acclaimed worship leader. He was the Convenor of the Panel on Worship which produced The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, 1995. (See p. x.)
O. Benjamin Sparks is interim editor of The Outlook and pastor, Second church, Richmond, Va.
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